Gluten free, dairy free, nut free…..specialty diets are everywhere! However, not everyone has the same reaction to the food they are avoiding. What’s the difference between being allergic to a food vs. being intolerant or sensitive?
What is a Food Allergy?
The job of your body’s immune system is to destroy germs that make you sick. A Food Allergy results when the body mistakenly targets a food protein, an allergen, as a threat and attacks it. The immune system then produces abnormally large amounts of Immunoglobulin E (IgE for short). IgE fights the enemy by releasing Histamine and other chemicals. This can result in mild symptoms like a rash to severe breathing problems or even death!
The most common IgE allergens in children include Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Soy, Milk, Eggs, and Wheat. The good news is that many children outgrow their Food Allergies and can eventually reintroduce allergens under the supervision of their doctor. Adults can also develop Food Allergies. The allergens most commonly seen in adults are Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Fish, Shellfish, Citrus Fruit, and Wheat.
What is a Food Intolerance?
Lactose Intolerance is an example of a common intolerance where your body lacks the enzyme needed to fully digest the lactose found in dairy products. This results in unpleasant symptoms such gas, bloating, and sometimes diarrhea. Foods high in fermentable carbohydrates, referred to as FODMAPS, can also cause similar symptoms (learn more info on my website). These intolerances are NOT immune related. They are considered Non-IgE (non-allergic). They are not life threatening, but can certainly make for a miserable existence if you’re the one experiencing the symptoms!
What about a Food Sensitivity?
Food and Food Chemical Sensitivities are also Non-IgE (non-allergic). When a suspect food is consumed, a variety of triggering mechanisms release inflammatory chemicals (called mediators) from various types of white blood cells. Many people reach a point of constant inflammation where they are experiencing chronic symptoms. These symptoms may be immediate, but are usually delayed by hours to days. Suspect foods can be just about anything! Even foods known for having anti-inflammatory powers (think raspberries, spinach, salmon).
I often use this scenario to explain Food Sensitivities to my patients. ” Visualize a balanced see-saw with a bucket on one end. You may feel great when the bucket is empty. If you continue to add a cup or two of sand to that bucket each day, eventually the see-saw will shift and that bucket will spill over.” If you don’t know what your “sand” might be, you may never have answers to why your bucket keeps tipping!
I use Mediator Release Testing (MRT) in my nutrition practice to help patients who have inflammatory symptoms find out what foods and food-chemicals might be the problem.
What about Gluten?
Celiac Disease is a Non-IgE Auto-Immune disorder affecting less than 1% of the world’s population. Blood testing and a biopsy of the duodenum (upper stomach) is used for diagnosis and people affected need to follow a strict gluten-free diet.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity affects a much higher population. This should be considered once an IgE Allergy and Celiac Disease have both been ruled out and negative symptoms continue.